We were four of the 1,019,000 viewers who watched last weekend’s championship game. Sitting in our own little pocket of the sporting universe that afternoon (nestled in a homey little Queens apartment), it felt like the entire world was drinking it in along with us.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be in 2013. 505,000 average viewing audience on ESPN. 514,000 average viewing audience on UniMas.
With Manhattan Martinis in hand and a smorgasbord of food on the adjacent coffee table, my friends and I sat down for the televised festivities that would bring the MLS season to a close. MLS Cup. ESPN. The few and the proud were walking out onto the frozen pitch to contest for power and glory. Feisty Sporting Kansas City vs savvy Real Salt Lake. The atmosphere was thrilling. The air looked frigid. The anticipation was relentless.
The game kicked off. For the next three-and-a-half hours, my friends and I were treated to an electric final. Full-time. Extra-time. Ten rounds of penalty-kicks. The futbol-geek inside me was fully satiated. The soccer was somewhat limited – heavily defensive play, some poor touches, questionable officiating, uncoordinated balls – but this game was, in essence, exactly what you would expect from a final played in near-arctic temperatures. Finals are often not great examples of quality play. Teams often play not-to-lose as opposed to play-to-win. The wind-chill in Sporting Park surely limited movement. The ball was bouncing on tundra.
Still, the match had us enraptured. We gasped at near-chances. We shouted mercilessly at reckless tackles. We laughed at a few of the better quips from the commentary team.
We enjoyed the game with the kind of cavalier abandon you might reserve for a Super Bowl final when you have no proverbial pony in the race.
Of course, we kept tabs on the college football scores chattering around us. One of my friends is a former football kicker and an alumnus of Texas Tech who bleeds for the Red Raiders. There were thrilling championship games raging across the country. We kept an eye on box scores for them all.
But, we gave MLS Cup our primary focus. We’re soccer fans. It was a final.
We were clearly in a miniscule minority.
As we sipped our cocktails and ate our chicken tenders inside of our soccer bubble, the rest of the nation continued with its football fanaticism. The numbers bear this out: 14.4 million viewers tuned in for Auburn vs. Missouri game that was broadcast at the same time.
The population of a small country watched Auburn vs. Missouri.
A moderate metropolitan area watched MLS Cup.
Glancing through a number of blogs and news sites, I found everyone had an opinion on what Major League Soccer had to do in order to improve its TV ratings. Remove salary caps. Establish specific, traditional broadcast windows. Introduce promotion/relegation. Etc. Etc. Etc.
I realize many of these writers and pundits live inside a larger soccer bubble. The US writers beat their chests that domestic futbol fans need to support the local league, regardless of quality and culture. Soccer as a cause more often than soccer as a product on the field. The “Euro-Snob” writer (or, possibly more appropriately, the Euro-Centric writer) states that the league lacks elite players, has no compelling narrative, and has a format that is too Americanized.
Europe vs USA. Elite style vs. pub-league physicality.
Why did only 1,019,000 viewers watch the MLS Final?
Simple: it wasn’t college football.
MLS lacks quality, elite players, and serious revenue? Perhaps. Atmosphere and compelling story-lines? The best facets of Major League Soccer has these elements in spades.
Why are so few watching?
Soccer in the United States hasn’t quite outgrown its adolescent, petulant phase. Until it gets past this rather unattractive stage, it will continue on as a smarmy, pimply youth.
Did 14.4 million viewers care that the football game they were watching was of poorer quality than the NFL game they would be catching the following Sunday? Do small towns in middle America care that the high-school football team they’re all rallying around is light-years behind the college or professional game they’ll catch later in the weekend?
Of course not. They don’t have the chip on their shoulder. They haven’t grown up marginalized. They can just enjoy the thing without a sense of insecurity about the quality of the thing they’re enjoying.
Soccer, alas, is still a niche sport in this country. Admirers of the sport are a strong, vocal contingent. But, they mostly annoy the college and NFL fans sitting next to them at the local sports bar. Because, the fan says under his breath (or often to your face after a few beers) we already have a code of football. It’s called American football. Gridiron football.
These are sports fans not in the Association football bubble.
This drives many soccer devotees crazy. The American fans are most susceptible to this feeling: they’ve been marginalized. So, in response, they discard any American sport. They believe it’s because soccer is so far superior to every other sport devised. In actuality, they really just love the sense of superiority. They’re far more worldly than their poor, isolationist compatriots who can only see as far as their insular game of “throwball.” “Padded rugby for girls”, they’ll say. They’ll smile smugly in their superiority. And, you can’t get a sense of superiority cheering on Major League Soccer, a league that is only ranked seventh in the world.
Many in the soccer community pride themselves on knowing the secret-handshake of the global game in a nation that is blissfully oblivious of the international game until the World Cup rolls along. And, as things stand right now, the secret-handshake of the European game is stronger than the domestic one. The European secret-handshake is hip, like listening to a cool, new, up-and-coming, slick band playing in a chic bar in Brooklyn. The domestic handshake is reserved for the soccer devotee, like the grown-man who still has his Spiderman comic book stash wrapped in plastic and displayed on his bookshelf next to his signed copy of WATCHMEN.
The folk with the European secret-handshake get up early on Saturday and go down to the local pub to watch the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A in bars that open early for the displaced Ex-patriots and Europhiles. They drink micro-brews and discuss their fantasy teams and trade rumors. They watch Arsenal or Barcelona games with the reverence of a long-suffering local (the Europhiles often studied abroad in London or Spain for a semester, which naturally makes them honorary natives) and include themselves as members of the roster as they us the all-inclusive “we” when referring to the team’s exploits.
They’re not watching MLS Cup.
The folk with the domestic secret-handshake are heading down to their teams’ modest stadiums (some of the stadia are soccer-specific, some are converted NFL stadiums, some are shared with other teams) or trekking down to supporter bars downtown where they attempt to fashion their own brand of lightweight hooliganism by antagonizing the lingering Europhile fans who’ve stuck around from that morning’s European game.
If their team’s not in the game, they’re not watching MLS Cup either.
The Domestic Fans still want to pick a fight with the Europhile Fans, so they’ll chant “You’re not English over there.” The Europhile fans will cry “MLS quality of play is unwatchable” and the domestic fans cry “don’t be a plastic fan” – and the rest of the bar tells them to shut up because the SEC Championship game is on.
Alas, we soccer fans are still in a bubble. It happens when you love something so strongly that has so limited appeal around you.
I was once told by a devout English soccer fan – who was born in D.C. – that I didn’t belong in the same soccer conversation they were having because I followed Major League Soccer. I clearly didn’t have enough learning and discerning to have an adult conversation about something as infinitely complex as futbol. By choosing to follow my local league housing “questionable quality,” I was clearly not fit to discuss soccer at the adult table. Like refusing to discuss Fellini films with someone who enjoys an Adam Sandler movie once in a while. Of course, she ignored the fact that I follow my domestic league alongside the Premier League, La Liga, Champions League, and the occasional Mexican game. Often in the same bar we were talking in.
I’m fully aware that Major League Soccer is only the seventh ranked soccer league in the world. I can see that clearly when I watch the games. But, it’s the game that’s being played in my backyard.
Why would I ignore it?
The rest of the bar told us to shut up. The Iron Bowl was on.
College football fans embrace their teams and their leagues regardless of whether or not they’re of elite quality. Because the blood of those games has thoroughly soaked into the soil.
Why are we not watching MLS Cup? The soil isn’t soaked with blood yet. In a world and a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed – and everything is driven by breakneck technology – we just don’t want to hear that time is the only thing that truly is going to aid Major League Soccer.
The league just needs to be around long enough for the blood of these games to soak the soil.
It’s the question of building a culture. And, while other writers might have you think differently, these are not questions that are going to be solved in a handful of blog posts.
They’re solved with sticking with the game. And, being proud of our Spiderman stash wrapped in plastic. It belongs to us and we understand it in a way outsiders simply can’t. There are battles and rivalries that will stand the test of time.
But, that’s what they need. They need time.
Time, blood, and soil are the only sure-fire solutions.
And, alas, they don’t fit easily into a snark-filled blog post or a tweet.
So, we’ll keep watching MLS Cup at our homely little Queens apartment until we can earn 14.4 million viewers. It may take a while, but you can certainly drop by and have a martini with us in our soccer bubble until that day stumbles along.
And, yes, we’ll still have the Iron Bowl on.